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Big decisions weigh on top 2014 hoops recruit Wiggins


4:52 PM, Oct. 24, 2012 EDT

Huntington (W.Va.) Prep's Andrew Wiggins, right, receives instructions from head coach Rob Fulford during practice Tuesday. Wiggins is one of the top prep basketball players in the country. / Randy Snyder

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Inside a cramped, dilapidated community center hidden at the end of a dark parking lot, Andrew Wiggins starts bouncing a basketball. Children scramble, and uninterested adults chatter about the night's presidential debate and how one-time phenom O.J. Mayo built his rep here.

They don't know that North Carolina Coach Roy Williams is a day away from boarding a private plane just to meet with Wiggins.

Wiggins starts attacking the well-worn basket. And he starts shooting, swishing one half-court shot after another. Conversations stop. Heads turn. Eyebrows raise. One slack-jawed man, Joseph Jones, sprints out of the gym to fetch a $20 bill. He rushes back, interrupts Wiggins mid-dribble and implores the 17-year-old to sign it.

"Just remember me in the NBA!" Jones hollers as Wiggins autographs it. "All I want is a beat-up Honda!"

Wiggins doesn't crack a smile. Basketball comes easy for the Huntington Prep junior, a Canadian-born-and-raised small forward considered by many to be the world's best under-18 amateur. Decisions – ones that could determine the narrative of the 2013-14 college basketball season – are the hard part.

Wiggins' pending decision about whether to reclassify as a high school senior, which would enable Wiggins to play college basketball next season and presumably enter the 2014 NBA draft, is among the most intriguing questions of the college basketball season and is weighing on the shoulders of the 6-foot-8 (and still growing), cherub-faced teenager.

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His high school coach, Rob Fulford said Wiggins needs just one more English credit to graduate a year early, and that he achieved a 3.13 GPA during the first nine-week grading period this fall.

He is being recruited by Kentucky and Florida State, his parents' alma mater. North Carolina visited Tuesday, and Ohio State and Kansas are scheduled to visit this week as well.

"It is a lot on him," his girlfriend, Mychal Johnson, told USA TODAY Sports. "We talk about it sometimes, but he doesn't like talking about it. That's how bad it stresses him out. Sometimes he doesn't know what to do."

Evan Daniels, the national recruiting analyst for Scout.com, said Wiggins is the closest thing to a complete package as he has seen in a prospect in at least five years.

"When you get a guy like that, you immediately put yourself in position to compete for a national championship," Daniels said. "If he were to go to Kentucky, that would give them the best recruiting class of all time."

The son of Mitchell Wiggins, who played NBA and overseas, and Marita Payne-Wiggins, who won two Olympic track-and-field silver medals for Canada in 1984, Andrew Wiggins knows he hit the genetic jackpot. He also knows he is caught between two different worlds, striving for professional greatness while cherishing fleeting moments of whatever normalcy his life still maintains.

MORE: Mitchell Wiggins Says Son is Ready for Next Step

Wiggins and teammate Moses Kingsley live with a host family – Scott and Lesley Thomas and sons Luke, 13, and Clayton, 10 – in a five-bedroom, 5,000-square-foot home in the quiet neighborhood of Proctorville, Ohio, located just across the Ohio River.

The Thomases say Wiggins has noticeably matured since moving in in 2011. Scott Thomas took Wiggins' cell phone away at one point last year because Wiggins was sometimes reluctant to take out the trash or wake up on time in the morning. And his eating habits were subpar; the family would pack their refrigerator with Eggo waffles because Wiggins craved five each meal.

Now, they say, his diet is balanced, his priorities focused. And Johnson, a highly regarded girls' basketball player at Huntington Prep who has been close to Wiggins for nearly a year, says Wiggins has blossomed socially after being too shy to even talk to her much a year ago.

Though Wiggins may not necessarily need another year of high school to mature, Johnson and Fulford, said he would benefit from it. But there is another reason why the decision to fast track his route to the NBA is not a no-brainer: Wiggins is unsure if he wants to relinquish childhood just yet for all the trappings of stardom.

Wiggins loved when he went with the Thomases to Kings Island amusement park, squeezing his frame into spinning rides and, at least for a day, finding a sanctuary from perpetual questions about his future.

"You always kind of feel a little bit sorry for him because he has so much pressure on him," Scott Thomas said. "We try to structure our house so he can be a kid."

Added Lesley Thomas: "He can never be a kid."

During this look-at-me generation in amateur basketball, Wiggins acts as if he is allergic to the spotlight, saying that he greatly respects the humble nature of the current NBA player he most admires: Kevin Durant.

Whenever Wiggins chooses a school, it will attract national attention and generate high anxiety among fans at Kentucky and Florida State, among others. But Fulford said Wiggins is so low key that he will probably just text the coach his decision and be done with it.

MORE: Wiggins' College Decision is 'Wide Open'

If there is too much demand for a news conference, Fulford envisions the hoopla-averse Wiggins standing in front of the television camera, saying only the school name, dropping the microphone and walking away.

"He doesn't grasp how good he is and how big of an impact he has on the game of basketball right now, not only high school but also college," Fulford said. "He doesn't get it right now that he has been tagged 'The Next One.' ”

But Wiggins exudes confidence. He said he was extremely motivated to outplay elite senior Julius Randle, which he did, in front of a standing room only crowd of coaches and media in Augusta, S.C., this summer because it "solidified" his reputation as the nation's best high school player. And Fulford said Wiggins was "very upset" that touted senior Jabari Parker was not at the same event because Wiggins was "tired of hearing about him," Fulford said.

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“I just try to kill whoever is guarding me," Wiggins said. "I don't practice to play against people in high school like Julius Randle and Jabari Parker. I practice to play against guys in the NBA because I want to be better than them. I practice to beat the best player in the world because I want to be the best player in the world."

In one Huntington Prep practice, Wiggins overheard center Dominic Woodson say something to a teammate, prompting Wiggins to respond, "You can't stop me either." Once play resumed, Wiggins inserted his mouthpiece, dribbled down court and dunked on three players.

"Told you," Wiggins said to Woodson.

Wiggins attended ninth grade at Vaughan Secondary School in his native Vaughan, a suburb of Toronto. It is a northern suburb of Toronto. Fulford, who had Canadian players on his Huntington Prep team who knew Wiggins, recruited him throughout his ninth grade year two years ago.

Talent aside, Fulford acknowledged that Wiggins is no gym rat. Though Wiggins loves playing basketball, Fulford said he needs to fall in love with working on improving. Sometimes Wiggins gets bored with practice, and coaches nudge him, looking for the trigger. Fulford has told Wiggins two dozen times, "I don't think at any point ever that anyone had to go tell Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant to pick it up."

Despite the public interest, Wiggins' college decision has been on the backburner. Wiggins had not spoken at length about it with Fulford until Friday, when the coach asked, if Wiggins had to choose a school right now, which it would be. Wiggins had no idea. And he said he was unsure of which schools were recruiting him.

Though Fulford has told Wiggins that he believes Wiggins should enter college next season, Wiggins said his final decision will be made in consultation with his parents in Canada.

Wiggins' host family, meantime, is divided when asked if they'd be surprised if he returned to high school.

"I would be," Scott Thomas said. "It's like jumping in a pool. The water is cold at first, but I think he will jump in and be fine."

Countered Lesley Thomas: "I wouldn't be. Mentally, he questions himself, and if you question whether you are ready, you are not ready … I think if he goes, it's because he is pushed, not because he's ready."

That night, at the end of a 12-hour day away from home that included classes, practice and a highly-scrutinized meeting with Williams, Wiggins walked into the Thomas home, put down his knapsack, ate two hamburgers and retreated to his room.

There, sprawled out on his bed, Wiggins gleefully controlled the Durant character in a basketball video game, again caught between the world he'll soon enter and the one he is unsure he wants to leave behind.

Someone asked if he enjoys being a kid.

Wiggins nodded, flashing his biggest smile of the day.
 

 

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